Arabian Nights (1974)

Mille_Et_Une_Nuits_(1974)So we come at last to the third and final movie in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life: Arabian Nights. For this outing, Pasolini has gone farther afield in medieval literature, if Arabian Nights can even truly be considered medieval. First instances of the collection date back to the 8th century, with more stories from various cultures being added over the years.  (I was more than a little surprised that two of the most famous of the tales – Aladdin and the Forty Thieves – didn’t enter the collection until the first French translation in 1704!)

True to the other movies in the Trilogy, Pasolini also jettisons the formal framing device of the traditional Arabian Nights, so say farewell to Scheherazade and familiarize yourself with our first tale, which will take its place: the arrival of a slave girl  Zumurrud (Ines Pellegrini) at the market – unusually, she is allowed to choose her new master, and isn’t shy about insulting prospective buyers. She chooses a young man, Nur Ed-din (Franco Merli) as her new master, and hands him a bag of a thousand dinars to purchase her, and procure a home.

zumurrudThis is, as one might imagine, a pretty sweet deal, especially since Zumurrud takes special pains to make sure Nur is no longer a virgin, and then starts using her talents at embroidery to keep the money coming in. Alas, Nur is a bit of an idiot, and proceeds to allow Zumurrud to be kidnapped – twice – and will spend the rest of the movie looking for her. Zumurrud escapes her second captor (one of the forty thieves, no less), and crosses the desert dressed as a man. She comes to a rich kingdom, where, luck would have it, the king has just died and it is the city’s custom to proclaim the next man to come in from the desert as the new king. Again, a totally sweet deal.

The first stories are read from a book by Zumurrud while the two are still in the idyllic stage of their relationship and rather serve to set up Pasolini’s view of this world: in the first, a noted sage and his wife make a deal about who will fall in love first between a boy and a girl they’ve arranged to have drugged so each will awaken in the same tent, but at different times; but they discover they’ve both forgotten about hormones and declare it a draw when both immediately hump the other. In the second, a rich poet picks up three willing young men for an evening of sex and poetry. arabian embraceIf anything, Arabian Nights is even less inhibited than the first two movies, but no less playful or joyous in its couplings. It’s also the most open about same-sex relations between males. Pasolini possibly thought that a society with such strong segregation between the sexes would result in more openness about homosexuality, and as film scholar Tim Rayns points out in his excellent essay on the Criterion Blu-ray, a general exodus by gay Beat writers like Burroughs to the Arab world in the 40s and 50s bears that out.

(One particularly lovely bit that springs from this segregation regards Zumurrud’s wedding night, when the supposedly male king is forcibly married to a vizier’s daughter. Taking a chance, Zumurrud reveals her true nature to the daughter, and the girl responds in peals of laughter, delighted that a woman has put one over on the men running the city.)

At one point in Nur’s miserable wanderings, he is hired by a girl to act as porter for her day’s purchases at the market. She winds up buying quite a bit (Nur’s goggle-eyed response at the list she rattles off to a merchant is another splendid comic moment, ending with his staggering under a huge bag of goods), and Nur dines with her and her sisters (and bathes with them afterwards,as Nur has the devil’s luck with women). After the meal, the girl who hired him reads from a book, and so begins our next major round of stories. ninetto

This is the most adventurous part yet, as the story begins with a king’s son, Prince Tagi (Francesco Governale) finding a man weeping at an oasis over a painted cloth. This man tells the story of falling in love with another woman on his wedding day, and breaking the heart of his poor cousin, who nevertheless  helps him to meet and finally bed this woman, while she herself dies of a broken heart. The man telling the story is Ninetto Davoli, who we recall is the man who broke Pasolini’s heart back during the filming of The Canterbury Tales, and it is likely no accident that the director cast him as a thoughtless and selfish young man. Reading intention into the fact that the woman he’s bedding eventually castrates him… well, that might be going a bit far.

Tagi, however, is overjoyed, because the assignations took place in Princess Dunya’s garden, and the cloth is her work, and he is in love with her! So the two head to the city and he manages to finagle his way into Dunya’s garden, only to be told that the Princess is a man-hater of the first water, due to a dream she once had. Tagi decides to create a beautiful mosaic in the garden, which will show her an error in her dream. He hires two beggars to help him with the mosaic, who turn out to be traveling holy men, who each tell the tale of how they came to be so, as both were princes who ran afoul of mystic, even demonic forces (once again, Franco Citti providing the demonic role). Well, Tagi’s mosaic works, and as he consummates his love with the formerly man-hating Dunya, we come back to the dinner with the sisters. Stories nestled within stories! Impressive!

And because I know you’re wondering, Elisabetta Genovese, whom I was crooning over in Canterbury Tales, is the girl who hired Nur Ed-din. And yes, she did smile, so my evening was complete. Yes, she also got naked, but that is none of your business. Arabian-Nights-1080-12Nur Ed-din does eventually find the city, and Zumurrud cannot resist making him think that the King wants to bugger him (and as the soldiers carry the surprised boy to the King, men at the market are heard to say the Arabian Night version of “Yeah, I’d jump that”), but true love wins out, though I’d really love to see how much more complex that particular relationship was going to become. As it is, quantum mechanics would have been needed to map it out.

As I said, this is the most uninhibited of the three movies; perhaps by moving events to the middle east, Pasolini finally felt he was out from under the Church’s thumb, and finally free from Catholic guilt, could cut loose. There is quite a bit of sex on display here, but rarely is it explicit with a capital X – again, it is Pasolini yearning for a time before sex became another commodity, when it was a simple, loving act. If you want commercialization, you seek out the many rip-offs that followed the Trilogy of Life’s success, imitators that caused Pasolini to denounce his own work, to disavow them, and to settle back down to a trademark rage against politics and the world he found himself living in, with Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom.

As Rayns also points out, the Trilogy of Life is the rather unusual act of Pasolini being positive, after so many political movies, poems and treatises that were angry fist-shakes at the powers that be, the status quo. And it’s true: these movies contain much about the foibles and often hateful nature of human beings, but they’re more about the better things: trust, love, and, certainly in the case of Arabian Nights, sex. In it, the two are inseparable. arabiannightsblu00005I haven’t even mentioned the amazing locales Pasolini found, vistas that he could pan over without much in the way of obvious modernity. It’s a handsome picture, and I wish Pasolini had not been so brutalized by a carnivorous culture that fed upon the very thing he despised, commercialism. I wish this phase of his career had lasted longer. What could he have said with more time? As it is, we must be satisfied with what we have. Now I’m fascinated, and will be seeking out his earlier works. And I think now that I have context, I can finally see Salo and meet it on its own terms.

Here, have a trailer mostly obscured by vintage VHS noise, which is okay, because it gets pretty NSFW, anyway. And ponder that this most commercial of creatures, the movie trailer, casts Pasolini in a light he likely would have despised.

The Canterbury Tales (1972)

CANTERBURY TALES IT 2XAfter being pleasantly surprised by Pasolini’s The Decameron, I was really looking forward to the second movie in his Trilogy of Life, The Canterbury Tales which I also greatly enjoyed, and found it, if anything, funnier than its predecessor. Then I start doing my research, and find out that Pasolini was badly depressed during the shoot, and that everyone feels it is obsessed with death.

This is one of those things that make you doubt what little critical acumen you might actually possess.

Now The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, like Boccaccio’s Decameron, is considered one of the cornerstones of medieval literature, significant to its native language because it is written in its native language, not Latin or high-falutin’ French. Chaucer undoubtedly came across The Decameron during his travels in Italy – a scene in the movie has him reading the book and laughing, then concealing it under other books – and doubtless drew some inspiration from it. And the rest is English Lit major history.

pasolini7bigAs with The Decameron, a group of people are traveling – in the Italian classic, to escape the Plague, in Chaucer’s, a pilgrimage to the Tomb of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury, all telling each other stories to pass the time. Pasolini once again disposes of tales concerning kings, queens and knights and sticks with stories of more common folk – except when he can poke fun at wealthy merchants or, like Chaucer, ridicule clergy.  Pasolini’s hatred of consumerism and yearning for a time when sex was not an exploitable commercial commodity is still very much in strength.

My first inclination to like Canterbury even more probably derives from Pasolini filming almost entirely in England and using a lot of familiar faces, which provide a welcoming warmth even when dubbed into Italian. The first “The Merchant’s Tale”, features Hugh Griffith chewing the scenery magnificently as a wealthy man who decides late in life that a young woman should be his wife – Josephine Chaplin. Most of the tale concerns his sudden blindness and the conniving of the young woman to meet her swain right under his blind nose – or above it, as it takes place in an elderberry tree, in his private garden.



There have been two naked gods – Pluto and Persephone – walking about in the garden. Pluto will restore the old lecher’s sight, and Persephone will give the girl the words she needs to defend herself. I bring up this part of the story simply to point out that Persephone (or Prosperine, to get ideally Italian about it) is played by Elisabetta Genovese, who also appeared in The Decameron,  the tale of the two  young lovers meeting on a rooftop, which I called “sweet”. Yes, obviously, here she is, naked again. But no, I bring this up because this lady has the most glorious, sweetest smile I have  seen in quite some time; dear sweet Lord, I melted.  She will also crop up in Arabian Nights, which will make this old lecher happy, especially if she smiles again.

The English Lit majors will note that this is the wrong spot for the Merchant’s Tale, and then it will be like the time I had to discuss the difference between movies and books with my rather angry son after a viewing of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. Pasolini also filmed transitional scenes of the pilgrims on their way to buffer the Tales, but they were eventually cut in favor of time, and, as Pasolini pointed out, the bits about the pilgrims constitute a book of its own.

S1007813_08.tifIn fact, when we finally get to the tale of the Wife of Bath, probably the most famous and well-developed character in the Tales, we are not given her actual tale, which was a knightly tale usually found intertwined with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, particularly Gawain. Now, what we have here is something apparently drawn from one of her prologues – she has two – and is appropriately salacious, given her reputation. Also, TRIGGER WARNING: Naked Tom Baker.

I also wonder what Chaucer purists think of “The Cook’s Tale”, which the drunken cook can’t finish, but Pasolini does – and, moreover, realizes it as a medieval Chaplin movie, featuring Ninetto Davoli as Perkin the Reveler, complete with leather derby, bamboo cane (but not abbreviated moustache) and two cops that chase after him in sped-up motion. He also has his own wordless theme song, which he belts out at appropriate moments.

Davoli, who, like Geneovese, was also in The Decameron and Arabian Nights – hell, go back further, he was even in The Gospel According to St. Matthew – appears to be the crux of the underlying problem here. Oh, not with the movie, he’s great. But it was during the filming that Ninetto left Pasolini for, reportedly, a woman. Every writing and interview studiously avoid the word “lover” but he lived with Pasolini for ten years, and the director was devastated.

Once you know it’s there, you can find it in Pasolini’s portrayal as Chaucer, a melancholy barely visible, but there. In an entire section that was cut for time considerations, the story that Chaucer himself told in the Tales, the melancholy gave way to self-loathing. In the book, Chaucer is stopped because he’s boring the other pilgrims to death, and tells another. In the movie, he is stopped, told he has no talent, and to sit down and let someone who’s good take a turn. Ouch.

bfi-canterbury-tales-blu6Other stories are great adaptations – “The Friar’s Tale” and “The Pardoner’s Tale” are both proto-Twilight Zone plots; in the first, a corrupt Summoner makes a deal with the wrong person, a truly delicious Franco Citti as The Devil; in the latter, three boys set out to kill Death, with the expected results.

“The Friar’s Tale” has an addition that supports the claim of the movie’s death obsession. The Summoner finds two men engaged in two separate acts of homosexual sex. One is rich and bribes the Summoner, the other is poor and winds up being burned at the stake. Pasolini actually shows the execution, with a bunch of richly-garbed, uncaring clergymen and an audience of commoners craning to get a good look.  The Devil is in the back of the mob, selling fritters from a tray. Given Pasolini’s own open homosexuality and state of mind during the shoot, it’s a very chilling addition, indeed.

Two more things to point out, then I need to wrap this up: “The Miller’s Tale” is the first Canterbury Tale I ever encountered, waaaay back in eighth grade, I believe, being handed around because omigawd you guys is this ever dirty. It is, indeed, a tale of conniving lovers, gullible husbands, large tubs suspended from a ceiling, and red hot pokers up the cat flap. Pasolini’s dramatization is everything one could want, with a nude Jenny Runacre thrown in for good measure.

"Busted by the cops? TIME FOR MY THEME SONG!"

“Busted by the cops? TIME FOR MY THEME SONG!”

Finally: “The Summoner’s Tale” is but a fragment, dutifully presented, but then continued as a greedy Friar (Nicholas Smith!)  is shown Hell by an angel. It is here that Pasolini returns to Mount Aetna for his vista of hell, including an enormous devil’s ass farting out friars. It’s quite something to behold.

Canterbury Tales has the reputation of being the weakest of the Trilogy of Life. Having not yet seen Arabian Nights, I can’t really give a definitive opinion – but I liked Canterbury. For the most part, Pasolini’s version of the Tales is remarkably faithful; some have said that after viewing the movie, they’ve gone to Chaucer’s original to find that yes, all that stuff – fanciful devil butts aside – were actually there. I’m reminded of when I was in an Accelerated curriculum in high school. I was a junior, but the seniors were studying Macbeth, so they brought in a movie version – and it was Polanski’s version. I’m sure that was a couple of very interesting afternoons.

Unfortunately, they were a little wiser than that when I became a senior. At least there’s always DVD.

Sorry, couldn’t find a trailer! – But the entire Trilogy of Life is currently on Netflix Instant!

The Decameron (71)

Pier Paolo Pasolini haunts me.

decameron_ver2As a Texas boy I didn’t know much about him, contemporaneously. His murder in 1975, and of course the infamous Salo provided buzz that even pierced the beefsteak curtain that surrounded the conservative towns of my youth. Going to a liberal college didn’t help too much in that direction. Moving to Houston could have helped, with bit of effort on my part; then again, in 1982 Houston Vice Officers raided the classy rep house River Oaks Theater because they were showing Salo. In 19 – fucking -82. Then again, looking over the headlines for ’82 proves that was a pretty dire year, anyway, so forget that line of outrage I was pursuing.

These days, you can listen to podcasts about Salo, you can buy it on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, for pete’s sake. The point I think I’m trying to make is that Pasolini has always been a dangerous filmmaker, because he was overwhelmingly a political filmmaker – so what, then, are we supposed to make of his Trilogy of Life, given a wonderful Blu-ray box set release in December from (once again) Criterion?

PasoliniCatholic, openly gay, Marxist, Pasolini seems to have lived a life of eternal controversy. He probably astounded a lot of people during the student uprisings of 1969 when, unlike every other Leftist, he sided with the policemen against the students. That’s an important distinction: not “The Police”, but “policemen”, who he felt were underpaid servants doing a tough job, facing pampered rich kids who could afford to go to college and study. Look over Pasolini’s earlier movies, and his novels and poetry: he was fascinated by, and allied himself to, the underclasses.

It’s been pointed out that what Pasolini ardently decried was consumerism, and taking that into consideration, along with his disillusionment with what the left-leaning parties in Italy were becoming, it’s no wonder he turned to medieval writings as the basis of his next few movies.

Decamerone-Il_1The Decameron itself is probably in the Top Ten of medieval books. Written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the 1350s, it has ten young people telling ten tales to each over the course of ten nights for a total of 100 stories. Besides the sheer volume of stories contained therein, The Decameron is most notable – or infamous, depending on your viewpoint – for being written in Italian, not Latin, as all good intellectuals wrote at the time. Thus it forms a very important cornerstone of Italian culture.

Pasolini carries on the thumb-nosing spirit of that by abandoning the dominant Tuscan dialect used by Boccaccio and instead using the Southern dialect, Neapolitan, a “language without prestige”. Pasolini drops the tales of Kings, Queens and Knights and concentrates on stories concerning people of lower classes, or turns the occasional knight into a merchant. And above all, he does not shy away from the earthier aspects of the stories. In fact, the word “earthy”, had it not already existed, would have been coined for The Decameron.

tumblr_mdnjivLIti1qzh8m2o1_500The first complete story, after all, concerns a young merchant who falls for a complicated robbery scenario that involves him stepping into a booby-trapped privy and falling into a cesspool, resulting in many comedic cries of “Aaah! I’ve fallen into the shit!” Subsequent stories include a young man pretending to be a deaf-mute to get a job in a convent so he can service all those horny nuns, and a woman who convinces her none-too-bright husband to scrape out an enormous urn while her lover finishes the assignation interrupted by the husband’s early return. Right there, just outside the urn.

All these events are performed pretty matter-of-factly, but the perfect example of what I’m trying to get across comes in the second half, in the tale of a young woman who convinces her parents that she is stifling in the heat of their bedroom, and is allowed to sleep on the roof; this so her young swain can climb the garden wall so they can have a night of sex. This is the story that has the knightly father changed into a merchant, but the result is the same: he connives to have the young man marry his daughter on the spot, so two rich families become even richer, and everyone is happy.

qFBFiHere’s the thing: the nudity and sex here is so unsophisticated, so uncluttered with eroticism that it becomes strangely sweet, given the scandalous circumstances (the fact that a bikini tanline is visible on the actress’s bare back notwithstanding). This is true of all the segments, and illustrates a lot of what Pasolini was working toward: stripping away the commercial intent that had been layered over the imagery through the years, particularly in film in the 20th century. There is no shame assigned to human functions. And he had to consciously revert to medievalism to achieve this.

Of course, you get a good idea, it will immediately get ripped off for all the wrong reasons, especially in this era in the Italian movie industry. There followed a bunch of prurient Decameron rip-offs, and you could almost hear Jon Lovitz in fop gear complaining about how “my delicious tales of ribaldry have been turned into simple smut!!!” Pasolini was disappointed, of course – this wasn’t the reason he made the movie, at all. His was a stand against commercializing sex, and having found himself actually stimulating pornography, he would disown the Trilogy of Life before his death in ’75.

the-decameron-007How sad, then, that Pasolini himself enters the movie in the second half’s framing device, as a painter hired to paint a triptych fresco in a church in Naples. He is seen haunting the marketplace, memorizing faces and creating frames with his fingers. Throughout the movie, Pasolini has done a wonderful job of recreating medieval life, especially in the scenes of rustic markets and country partying. He recreates several paintings of the period splendidly (and Bruegel winds up looking just as strange in three dimensions as you would have guessed), and cast non-actors, looking specifically for interesting Southern faces (with eccentric dentistry apparently a plus – again, presenting a world in which the human body, in all its variations, was nothing to be ashamed of).

article00It’s significant, then, that the movie ends with the painter, his crew, and the clergy quaffing celebratory wine when the fresco is declared finished, although it is obviously only two panels of the triptych. Pasolini, with a mug of wine, looks at his work  bittersweetly, musing “Why complete a work when it’s much more beautiful to dream it?” That’s something in which Pasolini himself had more than a little experience.

If nothing else, The Decameron has served well to whet my appetite for Pasolini. I look forward to the next two movies in the Trilogy, and am intrigued that he made a version of Oedipus Rex… hell, I might even finally watch Salo! I am especially eager to see his Gospel According to St. Matthew, made during his more political period, nominated for three Oscars, and hailed by theologians. A cursory search reveals it to be on Amazon Streaming, so there you go. Miracles do happen.